Year after year the draft seems to consist of positional groups that are significantly stronger than usual and are talked about by everyone. In the 2018 NFL Draft, people talked nonstop about the level of talent at the quarterback, running backs, interior offensive linemen, and cornerbacks. Those four positions alone accounted for 14 of the 32 players selected in the first round, including each of the first four selections.
The narrative for the upcoming 2019 draft is that quarterbacks and running backs are both looking rather weak in comparison to the class of 2018. While the quarterback class looks below average as of now and doesn’t seem to have anyone as polarizing as Baker Mayfield, or as well-rounded as Sam Darnold, there will be those who perform well enough to prove that they can be a franchise cornerstone. On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that the running back group this year will show that they don’t deserve to be considered below average.
In each of the past four drafts (2015-2018), there has been a running back selected in the top ten with Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, Leonard Fournette, and Saquon Barkley. Gurley and Elliot have proven their worth as top ten picks and Fournette showed flashes as a rookie as to what he can do in years to come. Barkley was an elite talent in college who is an exceptional pass catcher and he should undoubtedly find a key role on the Giants’ offense.
To keep expectations realistic for this upcoming season, there probably won’t be a top ten back in the draft, but it is a very deep group that could see up to seven running backs selected in the first two rounds. While Iowa State’s David Montgomery, Alabama’s Damien Harris, Stanford’s Bryce Love and Oklahoma’s Rodney Anderson are getting most of the hype and media attention, and even some Heisman talk, there’s another running back who I expect to play himself into first-round talks come seasons end.
Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill joined the team in 2016 as a three-star recruit but made an instant impact as the nation’s leading freshman rusher, as well as a First-Team Freshman All-American. Hill was the odd man out of the Cowboys’ offense, being in that he wasn’t draft eligible while playmakers Mason Rudolph, James Washington, and Marcell Ateman each got drafted in this past draft. He was by no means the odd man out in terms of production though, torching the Big 12’s top three defenses for 117.7 yards per game on the ground, amassing 4 touchdowns over a three-game span. On top of that, he exploded against cross-state rivals Oklahoma, where he went off for 228 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns. This is only to show that he can produce against the top competition, but not to say they were outliers amongst his season average, which sat at 112.8 yards on the ground per game as well with 15 touchdowns in 13 games. Justice Hill was a huge part of the offense that ranked second in the nation in total offense, and carried some of the most dangerous weapons in the country.
Enough about stats because we know that stats can be misleading and narrative driven. Watching Hill carry the ball is an absolute joy. After his superb freshman season, he added 15 pounds in the offseason, bumping him up to 5’10, 185 pounds. Although the weight was unnoticeable while watching his quickness and agility, it made a tremendous difference in his ability to carry defenders and pick up a couple extra yards. He expanded his game by having the ability to run through defenders rather than bouncing every run outside towards the sideline. Where that helped him especially in his sophomore season was giving him the opportunity to break a tackle before hitting the edge with speed for a nice gain. Hill finished the season with over 650 of his rushing yards coming from carries that went for more than 15 yards. He is patient with blocks at times before exploding through the gap, and it seems most of the time as though he’s running on lava because his feet are incredibly active and shifty. This helps him change direction in a split second, making defenders miss often and when he hits the second level, he has good breakaway speed that few defensive backs will be able to close the gap on. He’s a very explosive athlete who possesses good vision as a runner, and his strength comes from his legs, which was put on display by a viral video last season that shows him squatting 565 pounds.
Of course, as with every running back coming into their draft-eligible season and especially junior season, he has some aspects of his game that he needs to work on.
First, on draw plays, he often pounds the ball quickly up the middle for a gain of a couple yards. However, with his shiftiness, he needs to learn to consistently let the offensive linemen set blocks in front of him to isolate linebackers and force them to make a tackle in open space.
The second thing that Hill would benefit from would be working on his receiving out of the backfield. He was mostly abysmal as a pass catcher last year and it may be due to the fact that Rudolph often forced throws to Washington or Ateman regardless of coverage, ultimately limiting his opportunity. Hill needs to demonstrate his ability to be a solid check-down option if he wants to hear his name called on Day one of next year’s draft. The tape shows that he has the hands to be a weapon out of the backfield but his route running needs to be crisper and with new weapons around him, his route tree could be expanded, giving him the opportunity to prove himself.
Finally, this isn’t necessarily a fault of Hills, but rather a challenge for the upcoming season. He displayed his strength, speed, and agility, but he did it all while the defense spread to all corners of the field protecting the end zone from Rudolph and the receiver tandem. This year, Hill will likely face stacked boxes often and as the main weapon on a high-powered offense, he will have to prove that he can carry the load of the Cowboys’ offense.
My preseason running back rankings have David Montgomery first by a hair, followed by Justice Hill, but that was merely due to the consideration of situations. Hill’s tape study was more impressive, and lead me to place an original higher grade on him, but the offensive weapon discrepancy between Iowa State and Oklahoma State in 2017 allowed Montgomery to surpass Hill by a slight margin. If Hill can prove himself as a receiver out of the backfield and if he can carry the offensive load without the likes of Rudolph, Washington, and Ateman, he has a serious chance to grade out as my top running back entering the draft next season should he choose to do so.